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In today’s Americana, a look at how Republican Lee Zeldin won by losing. ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
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December 16, 2022
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Americana

Americana
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David Weigel
David Weigel

In today’s Americana, we look at Lee Zeldin, the silver medalist in New York’s governor’s race. He’s the latest example of a political phenomenon we’ve seen a lot of in recent years: The losing candidate whose party can’t wait to see them run again. But can he build on his newfound stardom where others failed?

We also have a chat with Tim Walz, the Democratic governor of Minnesota who quietly led his state party to a trifecta in the midterms. Plus, a look at the complicated musical chairs in Virginia set off by a Democratic Congressman’s death.

If you’re enjoying Americana, be sure to share it with your friends. It’s a great holiday present and the price is right.

David Weigel

In Lee Zeldin, Republicans Have Found Their Own Stacey Abrams

Photo: Flickr/Spirit of Virginia

THE NEWS

In three weeks, Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y. won’t be a member of Congress. He decided not to run for RNC chair, declaring the race “pre-baked” for Ronna McDaniel. While his personal poll numbers surged after his loss to Gov. Kathy Hochul, in which he pulled unusually close for an Empire State Republican, there’s nothing for him to run for.

Yet Zeldin’s 2022 campaign is still paying dividends for Republicans, who won the House majority thanks to upsets in upstate New York and Long Island where candidates rode his electoral coattails. At the same time, conservatives are practically begging for him to play some kind of future role in the party, to the point where they’ve floated his name as a potential alternative to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. for House speaker.

“This is the Lee Zeldin majority,” Rep. Ben Cline, R-Va. said earlier this month. “Because Zeldin has delivered these New York seats for Republicans in Biden districts.”

DAVE’S VIEW

In some ways, Zeldin’s position parallels the situation that greeted Democrats Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams in Texas and Georgia after the 2018 elections. They too found themselves as losing candidates with new stardom after coming within striking distance in underdog races, and party leaders were eager to invest more in their state and replicate their message elsewhere.

It makes sense that the GOP would look to Zeldin as a new guiding light. Republicans made their most dramatic 2022 gains in two states: Florida and New York. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis took office with the GOP in command of the state, and expanded its appeal with an enormous fundraising advantage over Democrats and an aggressively gerrymandered new congressional map. Zeldin couldn’t rely on either — he cut into the Democrats’ cash lead only when super PACs rushed in — and his tactics are seen as more replicable in blue and purple states.

Zeldin’s boosters described two tactics that other Republicans could and should copy, whatever he does next. First — much like O’Rourke in rural Texas — Zeldin campaigned in places where the party was typically not competitive, to shrink the Democrats’ win margin. And time spent in New York’s outer boroughs paid off. In 2018, when Rep.-elect Marc Molinaro was running for governor, he won just 18.3% of the vote in Queens. Zeldin doubled that, building on GOP gains among Asian and Jewish voters that Democrats first saw in the 2021 city elections and did nothing to reverse.

“You can’t write off big states like New York or California, just because they have a Democratic enrollment advantage,” said Rep.-elect Mike Lawler, who ousted Democratic campaign chair Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney in a new seat in the city’s northern suburbs.

Zeldin was a rare midterm candidate who was closely associated with Trump, but managed not to be defined principally as a MAGA warrior in his own run. He also made some concessions to the state’s electorate that some less successful candidates were reluctant to embrace, including an ad promising not to change the state’s abortion law.

But the real key to Zeldin’s identity as a candidate, supporters argue, was his relentless focus on crime — a theme for Republicans across the country, but usually one of several. After winning the nomination with a mix of messages, Zeldin never let up on crime, and Democrats were slow to defend their record of reforming cash bail. After a shooting near the candidate’s home, weeks before the election, Brabender rushed a crew there and cut an ad with Zeldin’s family.

“His willingness to look into the camera and be very frank with voters was very, very helpful,” said Molinaro.

Of course, O’Rourke and Abrams can also be viewed as cautionary tales. Their losses this year became lessons for Democrats on how not to spend political capital, with Democrats fretting that their time in the national spotlight compromised the close-to-home appeal that had made them competitive.

“Some candidates develop a certain amount of fame from quasi-successful runs, and when that stops after the election, they hunger for it,” said Zeldin media consultant John Brabender. “That’s not Lee’s personality.”

Speculation about Zeldin’s own plans has moved on to potential roles in New York. He won Suffolk County, where he’d won all his other races, by 18 points; the county executive job, held by Democrats since 2003, is up next year. Republicans give Zeldin more credit for the party’s good year than outgoing party chair Nick Langworthy, who won a seat in Congress last month; the party will elect a new chair next year.

“Lee Zeldin did this on his own,” said Republican strategist Michael R. Caputo, who managed businessman Carl Paladino’s 2010 run for governor, when Zeldin was a candidate for state Senate. “He changed the face of Washington, D.C. by sheer force of will. There has to be a role for him, somewhere in the party, to replicate what he did in New York across the country.”

ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT

Some Democrats argue Zeldin received a unique boost from a divided and dysfunctional state party that had problems unlikely to be reproduced elsewhere. In particular, progressives fumed at New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, for feeding fears of out-of-control crime in the local press and blaming the Democratic governor and state legislature.

NOTABLE

  • Over at The Liberal Patriot, Ruy Teixeira warns that progressives are too confident about their power in the suburbs and “have a touching faith that the anti-MAGA playbook will work anytime anywhere.”
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The Map

National. Roger Sollenberger investigates Sam Bankman-Fried’s straw donations, support for candidates that was allegedly laundered through other people (Bankman-Fried is an investor in Semafor)… Bradley Devlin makes the conservative case that the GOP’s leadership bungled the midterms… Steve Peoples talks with RNC members about their bitter leadership fight… and Phillip Bump is mystified by Donald Trump’s bait-and-switch “special announcement.”

Florida. Gary Fineout tracks Gov. Ron DeSantis’s moves and the contrast with a floundering Trump campaign, as he convenes “a grand jury to investigate Covid-19 vaccines.”

Georgia. Maya King reports on the Secretary of State’s call to end runoff elections, and how he’ll pitch it to legislators next month.

New York. Hannah Gais and Michael Edison Hayden get inside the New York Young Republican Club’s year-end dinner, where Jan. 6 jokes made more news than GOP wins.

Pennsylvania. Jonathan Tamari asks why Republicans abandoned the tactics and messaging that worked twice for Sen. Pat Toomey, who “didn’t go to Washington just to burn it down from the inside.”

Texas. Jack Craver covers the race for run Austin, where a former mayor defeated a progressive challenger.

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Polls

Two things happened to Joe Biden last month: He had the best midterm election of any president in 20 years, and he turned 80. The second fact explains this number, and the consistent supermajority of all voters — this is just a sample of Democrats — who say they don’t want the president to run again. After their first midterm elections, when their party lost dozens of seats, Democrats backed another Bill Clinton run by 20 points, and another Barack Obama run by 56 points. At least the trend is in the right direction for Biden: Only 25% of Democrats wanted him as their nominee in their July poll.

Americans were more optimistic about the last House gavel changeover, in 2018, than they are about this one. Why? In 2018, Democrats overwhelmingly thought that Washington would change after their party won the House, and independents, by a smaller margin, agreed. Now, just 14 percent of independents are optimistic about GOP control of the House, 19 percent expect things to get worse, and the vast majority don’t expect anything. It’s a bleak, stable mood.

The first public poll of this Feb. 28, 2023 election was conducted for a union that’s already endorsed Garcia, a Chicago congressman who challenged then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and held onto his support with progressives. Garcia isn’t the only candidate running to Mayor Lightfoot’s left, but with no candidate close to the 50% win threshold, Lightfoot is in trouble. In a runoff with Garcia, Lightfoot picks up 7 points, while the congressman’s support doubles.

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Ads
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Lightfoot for Chicago, “My Parents.” Chicago’s mayor started her re-election campaign deeply unpopular, frequently memed, and personally disliked. Her ads keep battling her bad image, from jokey spots where she shows up to handle complaints to this one. “I wouldn’t be sitting here but for the sacrifices that my parents made for me, particularly my mom,” Lightfoot says, her voice trembling.

Rouse for Senate, “Whatever It Takes.” Virginia Beach city councilman Aaron Rouse played as a linebacker for Virginia Tech, then the Green Bay Packers, enjoying a short career in the NFL. His first ad in next month’s state Senate special election frames that as a success story – “mom raised us on our own” and he became “the man of the house” before triumphing as an athlete.

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Protect Abortion? Legalize Marijuana? Minnesota’s Governor Has Big Plans For His New Trifecta
Nikolas Liepins/Office of Governor Tim Walz

This was supposed to be the year that Minnesota Democrats lost their grip on the state; that Attorney Gen. Keith Ellison would be ousted, or the GOP would flip back a suburban House seat. Instead, Gov. Tim Walz was re-elected as Democrats swept statewide races and gained the state Senate, giving the party control of the agenda in St. Paul. How did that happen, and what would Democrats do next? Walz sat down with Semafor to talk about it.

Americana: Republicans lost everything in Minnesota, and they’d felt like they could win some of those statewide races in the aftermath of 2020 and COVID. Why did they lose?

Tim Walz: They focused on the grievances around the COVID pandemic. I think all of us acknowledge that was incredibly hard. We did the right thing. I think we got a good outcome. But they continued to tell people that these things failed, when all they had to do is look at their own families and know that wasn’t true. In Minnesota, we’ve got a nearly 20-year history of the highest voter turnout, and they talked about election denial. My opponent decided to attack public schools.

Americana: He claimed that schools were providing litter boxes for students who identified as cats.

Tim Walz: Yeah, the litter box threat. And Minnesotans love their schools. Me and my team closed out the race by saying they’re rooting against Minnesota and looking for failure. Their whole narrative was “Walz failed,” but people were like — we’ve got the lowest unemployment rate in the history of the country, we are seeing things rebound.

Americana: Do you expect the fever to break here, Republicans moving on from Trump or some of the stuff that cost them?

Tim Walz: No, not amongst the party faithful. Not as long as you have President Trump and folks out there talking about the election lies. The former chair of the Minnesota GOP is suing the party over disparagement of her. I saw that and said to my team: We should get a lawyer for her!

Americana: Minnesota Democrats have a trifecta now, what are the first things you do when you come in next month?

Tim Walz: We need to codify access to abortion services and reproductive rights, as we promised. I need to win over some Democrats, who are a little resistant to this, but I think we can provide some inflation relief with some rebate checks. We can start competing for some of those competitive infrastructure grants. All across Minnesota, property taxes are going up because we didn’t increase education funding to help out local governments, and I want to see our team do that. And we need to show that government can function. Minnesota was getting into this bad habit of special sessions that go down to the wire of a shutdown.

Americana: Minnesota Democrats had a problem, for a while, with two “legal marijuana” parties pulling votes away in close races. Are Democrats going to legalize marijuana in Minnesota? What happens to those parties if you do?

Tim Walz: The problem was that Republicans abused that; they put in stalking horse candidates with that party label. It cost us the senate in 2020 and it nearly cost us this time. But I think we’ll pass it. We’ve been very deliberate about this. We brought in folks from Colorado and Vermont, early in our administration. We asked: What would the regulatory regime look like? What would the revenue piece look like? What would the enforcement pieces look like? What about expungement of convictions? We put that into place, we’ve worked for four years to try and get it passed, and the senate Republicans wouldn’t do it.

I’d say that by May, Minnesota will have gotten this done. I did think it would pass sooner, because I thought it was more of a libertarian issue. The actual people advocating for legal marijuana were good about it this year. They said, don’t vote for those marijuana party candidates. Vote for the Democrats because they want to get this done.

Americana: What’s your reaction to South Carolina, not Minnesota, getting the first primary.

Tim Walz I would say the shift was needed.

Americana: hat do you think about this idea that Democrats are giving up on Iowa going first in the Democratic primaries because they can’t win rural America?

Tim Walz: Oh, no, it’s just more reflective of where they’re at.

Not that many years ago, as a member of Congress, I won all 22 counties in southern Minnesota. A couple of those counties, I got 23% this year. In counties I’d won before! And my positions have not changed. I was pro-choice when I ran then. It’s just a demographic shift. What Democrats need to do is deliver for those areas. I can’t fight them on some of the culture war issues, but I’ll tell you what, they don’t think their schools are horrible. We’re going to get by this fever, and some of those folks will come back.

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Special Elections

Photo: Flickr/m01229

Southeast Virginia voters will pick a new member of Congress on Feb. 21, 2023, and Democrats want as little suspense about the winner as possible. The late Rep. Don McEachin won the seat by 29 points last month, any Democratic nominee is a lock to replace him, and the party is speedrunning the process to pick one.

Democrats will nominate their candidate on Dec. 20, in a “firehouse” primary – a one-day election, run by the party, where diehard activists are likeliest to turn out. Candidates have until the end of today to file, but State Sen. Jennifer McClellan announced her bid on Tuesday; by Thursday, state Del. Lamont Bagby had shuttered his 72-hour campaign and endorsed McClellan.

That left the 49-year old McClellan, one of three Black candidates who lost last year’s gubernatorial primary to ex-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, as the clear favorite to win the majority-Black seat. The only other elected Democrat running is state Sen. Joe Morrissey, a white, anti-abortion Catholic with a Lazarus-like ability to survive scandals.

“If he gets in, he wins,” tweeted radio host and pro-Trump activist John Fredericks, as soon as the “centrist” Morrissey looked ready to run. Republicans don’t have a shot at the seat, but Morrisey, if he won, would be the most conservative Democrat in the House.

That’s less likely after Bagby and his key supporters, like Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, got behind McClellan. One quirk worth noting: If McLellan does win a spot in Congress, Democrats would have to wait for a special election to replace her in Virginia’s closely divided state Senate. That would likely make the conservative Morrissey the chamber’s swing vote, potentially giving Republicans a short window in which to enact some legislation.

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Next
  • 25 days until special legislative elections in Virginia
  • 67 days until the special election for Virginia’s 4th district
  • 74 days until Chicago’s mayoral election
  • 109 days until Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court election
  • 690 days until the 2024 presidential election
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